When war is your favorite pastime and you're comfortable only in the company of people actively looking to slice you to pieces, the minute the fighting stops you can wind up spending a lot of time asking yourself, "What color is my parachute?" Ralph Fiennes, directing himself here in a modernized adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Coriolanus and taking on the title role of a massively scarred warrior who's also massively unready for political life after battle, knows that he prefers bloody brick red.
Set in a generically Euro location called "Rome" that isn't necessarily the one in Italy, with TV news feeds updating the action, it's a story of populist riots, sworn enemies, betrayal, manipulation, power-grabs, elitist political philosophies and mega-stabbings. Coriolanus is at the center of it all whether he likes it or not, and he likes it not. His monstrous mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is determined to see her son take political office, but the war-scorched patrician would rather be executing everything in his path than exercising diplomacy. He isn't into courting the masses for their favor (at one point they demand to see his victory scars -- this vexes him) or making a show of his accomplishments. In fact, he doesn't even believe in popular rule at all, which allows his enemies to brand him a traitor and, well, it just gets worse from there.
Updating Shakespeare is weird. It can go freakishly wrong, turning unexpectedly histrionic or hilarious when actors feel license to spit out the verse like extremely fancy rappers. But when adaptors infuse the classic texts with their own well-considered ideas, when they strip down and streamline interestingly, when nobody feels like a slave to the rhythm (or to much of anything, like in Peter Greenaway's swirlingly strange Tempest remix, Prospero's Books), it all feels new again.
The newness here translates to a timely, contemporary setting of nonstop war (Bosnia, Iraq, Wherever) and civil unrest over economic injustice, complete with citizens marching in the streets and riot police cracking skulls. It's enough to make you think Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan were simply transcribing CNN Headline News and grafting Shakespeare onto the imagery. But this rumbling ride into darkness is tempered by the script's insistence on retaining the ye olden-speak for most of its running time, which would have given all of the actors enough rope to hang themselves if any of them had dared showboating. But Fiennes, Brian Cox and especially Vanessa Redgrave as the maddest matriarch in the world ("Anger is my meat! I sup upon myself!" she spits at the people forcing her boy into exile) take the Shakespearean language and push it forward into the future. Even Gerard Butler, not known for his ability to pick projects that allow him to be a tough guy and prove his acting ability at the same time, keeps it to a medium growl.
In the end it's a rough, steel-toe-booted, black-eye of a movie and if I were curating a double feature I'd marry it to Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker instead of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. It's Shakespeare for aggressive warmongers. Proceed with rage.